Why does it happen?
Heat illnesses occur when your body can’t keep itself cool through perspiration, also called sweating. After a certain point, it loses the ability to sweat and that’s when a heat-related illness occurs.
What role does the heat index and high humidity play?
Heat illnesses are strongly related to the heat index, which measures how hot you feel when you combine the effects of relative humidity with air temperature.
High humidity makes the heat more dangerous because it interferes with your body’s cooling ability. As sweat evaporates, it transfers your body’s heat into the air. But how quickly your sweat evaporates depends on how much water’s already in the air.
On drier days, sweat evaporates faster, and that means it carries away heat faster from your body. On humid days, when the air’s already saturated with water, your sweat evaporates very slowly, if at all, and your body heats up. And, this is when people experience heat-related illnesses.
So before you go out, check the daily heat index that’s online, in the newspaper or on the TV weather forecast.
Who’s most at risk of a heat illness?
Anyone, at any age, can be affected – especially young children and older adults – but if you pay attention to warning signs, heat-related illnesses can be prevented.
So just what are heat illnesses and what can I do to prevent or treat them?
Heat illnesses include:
What is it? Sometimes called prickly heat, heat rash is a skin irritation from excessive sweating and occurs where clothing covers your body.
Symptoms: It looks like a red or pink rash that sometimes resembles tiny dots or pimples on your skin.
Treatment: Heat rash typically goes away on its own. If you experience it, move to a shady area, loosen your clothing and let your skin air-dry.
What is it? Heat cramps are muscle pains or spasms that usually happen during heavy exercise. If you don’t treat them, they can worsen and lead to heat exhaustion.
Symptoms: Typically you have painful muscle spasms in your arms or legs. Some people experience nausea or abdominal cramping.
Treatment: If you feel spasms, gently stretch and massage the affected areas. Rest in a cool place and drink a sports drink, preferably one with electrolytes and salt, or drink cool water.
What is it? Heat exhaustion is an illness that occurs when your body’s depleted of water or salt. It shouldn’t be ignored and it can occur before heat stroke.
Symptoms: Common symptoms are confusion; dark-colored urine; fatigue or weakness; a headache; extreme thirst; pale skin; nausea or vomiting; muscle cramps; dizziness; or even loss of consciousness.
Treatment: Get out of the heat and rest in air-conditioning or a shady area. Remove unnecessary clothing and take a cool shower (sponge bath if needed). Be sure to drink plenty of beverages (nonalcoholic and decaffeinated). If this doesn’t help, call 9-1-1 and get immediate help.
What is it? It’s a life-threatening illness where your body temperature rises above 105 degrees Fahrenheit. There are two types of heat stroke: classic or non-exertional and exertional.
Classic (non-exertional) heat stroke develops slowly over a few days after repeated exposure to hot, humid weather, and usually, occurs during summer heat waves. Those most at risk are the young, elderly and those with chronic illnesses.
Exertional heat stroke occurs more rapidly, think hours versus days, and affects healthy, active people – firefighters, factory workers, military recruits, and athletes. The intense exertion in a hot environment causes sudden, massive heat that the body can’t handle. This type of heat stroke is responsible for disability and death in these groups, particularly football players.
Symptoms: These include a body temperature above 105 degrees; sweating or a lack of sweating; a severe headache; confusion or disorientation; red, hot and dry skin; nausea or vomiting; rapid pulse, seizures; or even loss of consciousness. Unlike classic heat stroke though, in non-exertional heat stroke, sweating still occurs, but it doesn’t cool the body.
Treatment: Call 9-1-1 immediately. Then get the person out of the heat and rest in air-conditioning or a shady area. Remove unnecessary clothing and begin cooling the body immediately by:
- Fanning air over the person while wetting the skin with a garden hose or sponge
- Applying ice to the underarms, groin, neck or back
- Placing the person in a cool shower or tub of cool water, or an ice bath
Sources: National Institutes of Health, Florida Hospital, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration